Friday, June 22, 2012

A New Generation Keeps It Reel on 16mm

Local Cineastes Discover Pratt's 16mm Film Archives

This Friday at 9 p.m., the Windup Space in Station North is hosting an evening of experimental film classics culled from the Sights and Sounds Department of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The hour-long screening, entitled "Sights & Sounds from the Vaults," features short films by Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage, Denys Columb Daunant, Amy Kravitz, Claude Lelouch, Pat O'Neill, D.A. Pennebaker, Lillian Schwartz & Chick Strand. The programmers are Meg Rorison, Lorenzo Gattorna, and Kate Ewald, who are also the principles behind the upcoming "Sight Unseen" experimental cinema series; supported in part by by a MICA Launch Artists in Baltimore (LAB) grant award, this film series will officially launch July 7th at the Windup Space with a screening of "The Films of Mary Helena Clarke." (More on that later.)

"Sights & Sounds from the Vault" is the latest film screening or film series to feature films from the Enoch Pratt Central Library's outstanding collection of over 2,100 16mm films. Though the collection reflects the general scope of most subject areas and genres, it is highlighted by a concentration in independently produced narrative and documentary films (including many Baltimore Film Festival entries), and experimental shorts.

A number of local cineastes have previously scoured the Pratt's 16mm film collection to find obscure or rarely seen films to screen at their performance event venues. One of the main attractions to these curators? All of the Pratt's 16mm film titles come with built-in public performance rights. In other words, they're free to screen without worrying about copyright infringement/intellectual property rights issues!

Early fans of Pratt's collection include former Maryland Film Festival program director Skizz Cyzyk (who frequently borrowed 16mm films from the Pratt for his Mansion Theatre film series) and Laure Drogoul, who continues to borrow 16mm films for 14Karat Cabaret multi-media events.

Then, in 2009, Miguel Sabogol started the Hexagon Free 16mm Film Series/Magic Eye Cinema Events in conjunction with Mary Helena Clarke at the Hexagon gallery/performance space in Station North (one of the reasons City Paper named the Hexagon Baltimore's "Best Multipurpose Space" in 2009). Around the same time period, Martin Johnson started screening obscure non-theatrical 16mm films from Pratt's collection as part of his NINETEEN23 (named for the year the 16mm film gauge came into existence) film series at the 14Karat Cabaret. (See also the NINETEEN23 Facebook page.) As Johnson told Urbanite writer David Dudley, when talking about Pratt's 2,100-film resources, "I've calculated that I've got ten years of material. Easily."

The material's certainly there for the taking - and free of charge, to boot.

For the record, this is the lineup for tonight's Windup Space "Sights & Sounds from the vault" screening:

By Lillian Schwartz
1971, 3 minutes
“With computer-produced images and Moog-synthesized sound, Pixillation is in a sense an introduction to the electronics lab. Its forms are handsome, its colors bright and appealing, its rhythms complex and inventive." - Roger Greenspun, N. Y. Times. Moog sound by Gershon Kingsley. Pixillation won the Red Ribbon Award for Special Effects from The National Academy of Television, Arts & Sciences in 1971.

By Stan Brakhage
1963, 3 minutes
A "found foliage" film composed of insects, leaves, and other detritus sandwiched between two strips of perforated tape. This handmade and optically printed masterpiece still holds mesmerizing pull years after its initial release.

By D.A. Pennebaker
1953, 5 minutes
Silhouettes at dawn set to a score by Duke Ellington capture the beautiful freneticism of 1950s New York City in this early example of cinéma-verité. Pennebaker writes, “I wanted to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and its packed-in passengers that would look beautiful.”

By Amy Kravitz
1985, 7 minutes
In this film named after the river of forgetfulness leading to the underworld, drawings are created from non-traditional animation media including rubbed and erased graphite, pigment, and aluminum powders to make a surface of unusual richness.

By Pat O’Neill
1967, 9 minutes
Incorporating footage of oil derricks in Venice, California and nude models filmed in the artist’s studio, this colorful, optically printed animation features kaleidoscopic shapes reminiscent of a Rorschach test. Synthesizer score by Joseph Byrd.

By Claude Lelouch
1976, 9 minutes
A single travelling shot through France in the early morning. This cinéma-verité classic is hypnotic, finding beauty in the monotonous forward momentum of the road.

By Denys Columb Daunant
1960, 9 minutes
Wild horses fight, gallop through water, and run through raging fire in slow motion set to a dreamy synth score.

By Chick Strand
1976, 10 minutes
An experimental ethnographic film featuring Venezuela distinctive for its complex layering of sound and image and the juxtaposition of found footage and sound with original images.

By Jordan Belson
1961, 8 minutes
Belson, a visual musician, creates an abstract film richly woven with cosmological imagery, exploring consciousness, transcendence, and the nature of light itself. “I think of Allures as a combination of molecular structures and astronomical events mixed with subconscious and subjective phenomena – all happening simultaneously. The beginning is almost purely sensual, the end perhaps totally nonmaterial. It seems to move from matter to spirit in some way.” - Belson

OK, now back to the details about how this exciting new experimental film series came about...As Cara Ober wrote in her May 22, 2012 profile for Urbanite magazine, the award was designed by MICA trustee Steve Boesel to encourage MICA graduates to stay in town after graduation and create meaningful projects that enrich Baltimore's communities. "MICA realizes now, more than ever, talent alone will not necessarily lead to career success," says Boesel. "But talent combined with an entrepreneurial, business-oriented focus multiplies those chances."

The LAB program budgets $100,000 for five annual awards of $10,000 each to five MICA graduate students. One of those recipients was 2001 graduate Meg Rorison (Photographic & Electronic Media), who won a grant for her "Sight Unseen" project. As Rorison told Urbanite, "This grant gives me more motivation and opportunity to push for ideas and collaborations that I wouldn’t be able to pursue otherwise. With regards to the future, I am not sure how long I will stay here, but I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon. I love this city and feel very connected to the community here."

Baltimore's better for her commitment; let's hope she, and this series, stay around for a long time.

Related Links:
"Sights & Sounds from the Vaults" (Facebook page)
"Launch Lab" (Cara Ober, Urbanite)
"The Great Ecstacy of the 16mm Film Series" (Hexagon film series)
"Baltimore Hostel's Free Fall Film Series" (HI-Baltimore Hostel series)
NINETEEN23 (14Karat Cabaret film series)
"In Search of Buried 16mm Treasures" (Hexagon film series review)
NINETEEN23's "Future Shock" screening (Urbanite review)

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Postcard from Saskatoon

A Remembrance of Don "Dondero" McQueen

"In that province there’s a small town where nothing much ever happens called Saskatoon.” - The Guess Who, "Runnin' Back to Saskatoon"

"Iz cold man, real cold, wearing a beaver on my head and a moose on my bod"

Going through the bottomless pit of detritus in my domicile, I ran across this dog-eared postcard from back in the day from my high school and college bud Don McQueen, who after college moved to Saskatoon, Canada (Don had dual citizenship thanks to his family's Canadian ancestry and always loved the Great White North). The postcard - filled with inside jokes (the "splendiferous sequoias" is a Thurl Ravenscroft reference that I love!) - got me thinking back on those college days in the late '70s when I hung out with Don, before graduation and life circumstances led to us losing contact for a number of years, with only periodic visits over the decades. (Part of the problem was his health - Don suffered from depression throughout his life and was on disability, which precluded him from working and limited his ability to travel.) Everyone's lost contact with Don now; his sister Lynne informed me that Don passed away several years ago under somewhat mysterious circumstances; he disappeared the day before Thanksgiving 2003 and his body wasn't discovered until the snow thawed in May 2004 (it's really cold in Saskatoon!). Lynn thinks he went out for a walk and either fell or passed out near the railroad tracks.

Rafterball Boys, L to R: John Leist, Tom Warner, Harry, Bob Baer, Dave Derry and Don McQueen

Don was a year behind me at St. Paul's high school, but we reunited as classmates at Towson State University in my sophomore year. At Towson we mostly hung out in The Glen, where we played "rafterball" and partied in the big enclosed pavilion that became our defacto homeroom.

A Rafterball Reunion at the Glen Pavilion

The Glen had a subculture unto itself, with lots of non-students hanging out in the woods: they ranged from runaways and Towson High teens playing hooky to underage Sheppard Pratt outpatients who would trade us their meds (mostly Thorazine and assorted benzodiazepines) for alcohol - back then in the late '70s, the drinking age was 18 and the Parkside Pharmacy with its well-stocked liquor fridge was a mere 5 minutes away (they also had fountain drinks which they would top off with ammonia - it sounds weird but it was a cool pick-me-up similar to what today would be called an "energy drink"). Every homeless alkie in Towson (Crazy Dave the Army Vet, John Wayne, etc.) eventually ended up passing through the Glen - or hanging out at our hippie friend Jazz's place up the street, The Mars Hotel (which today is a drive-by Starbucks in Towson!) - as well as "businessmen" like Steve the Ice Cream Man, who sold pot out of his ice cream trucks (his motto: "I get you high AND I get you munchies!").

I always called Don "Dondero" because he had this cool sombrero that he would occasionally wear, among many cool hats. Anyway, Don was an incredibly popular guy - everyone loved him because he was funny as hell, very sociable and liked to "party" (maybe too much, in retropect). And to this day, I've never met anyone who knew Baby Boomer Pop Culture better - Don could sing you the theme song to cartoons like Ruff 'n' Ready or The Mighty Hercules ("Hercules, hero of song and story/Hercules, winner of ancient glories/Fighting for the right, fighting with his might/With the strength of ten ordinary men...") at the drop of a sombrero. And boy could he tell a story - he was the king of the amusing anecdote. He was both a jock (football, tennis, skiing) and a stoner - equal parts Gary Bussey and Dennis Hopper - and got along with both subcultures. Don had all the fun vices...he smoked ciggies (we both favored Winstons back then and would say "'Ston me, man" when bumming off each other), weed (usually while watching Leave It To Beaver, The Three Stooges, Capt. Chesapeake or other Nick-at-Nite-ish vintage shows on TV, always with the sound off and one of our beloved "Two Neils" - Nils Lofgren or Neil Young - blasting away on the stereo ...or The Firesign Theatre, if we weren't too wrecked to comprehend their wit) - and drank beer (he favored Canadian brews like Molsen and Moosehead and Labatts) and even Boones Farm and Ripple wine, when desperate and short on cash. Like me, Don lived at home while attending college - we both lived roughly 5 minutes away (Don walked to school while I drove most days) - and we would often go to his house after scoring muchies (either subs or pie at the nearby Pizza Palace, or Fish and Chips drenched in tartar sauce from Arthur Treachers) to do bong hits while watching The Mickey Mouse Club. Don and I loved the Mouseketeers, but always were intriqued by the oldest one, "Roy," who was a William Frawley-looking 60-something man hanging around with all those kids; we posited that he must be a closet pederast, though he always acted like a dim-witted stooge on the show. Don did a great Roy impression and the expression "Dumber Roy" was our code word for retards.

These stoner shindigs occurred primarily during high school, as I recall I pulled a Rimbaud my sophomore year. That is, just as the young French Symbolist gave up writing poetry when he turned 17, I gave up drugs entirely by the end of my sophomore year (19 or 20, I forget?). By that time I had survived a serious car accident that changed my life and attitude towards a lot of frisky behavior. (Not to mention the experience of a number of friends ending up at Sheppard Pratt - or worse, like Crazy Larry Scott who took so much acid that he thought he was a dog and was last seen chasing cars, on all fours, on York Road) That, combined with new friends (Arthur Campbell, the Ward Hall Boys) and joining a band called Thee Katatonix with Adolf Kowalski and my girlfriend Katie Katatonic, led me to drift away and hang out less with Don.

After school, Don eventually relocated in Saskatoon where he seemed to have trouble adjusting to a "normal" post-collegiate life. He never seemed to have a regular job, though he took up photography and was pretty good with it. He also had a knack for winning radio quiz contests and one time won a year's free passes to theb movies, which led him to becoming a movie buff on top of being a Pop Culture, Sports, and Vintage TV expert.

He would come back to Baltimore periodically to visit, usually over the holidays, and later he'd write me always-amusing letters and postcards. I'd get the occassional long-distance phone call, too. It was clear during these calls that Don was suffering from severe depression and I felt at a loss at how to help him. We would end up talking about old times, which tended to cheer him up - especially anything to do with the Orioles. By this time he was living with his painfully shy Candian girlfriend (she never said more than two or three sentences to me over the phone) whose name I forget, and who I was told was schizophrenic. She seemed really nice, with a "little voice" like Ted Baxter's girlfriend Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But according to Don's sister, she became increasingly troubled and their relationship deteriorated to the "I gotta get out of here" state it was the night Don went out for that fatal walk.

Besides family issues (depression apparently ran in the family, and Don never got over his Dad's passing), I think part of Don's post-collegiate problems had to do with him seeing himself as the "black sheep" of the family, something I could certainly relate to. His father was a surgeon, his mom a college professor, his brother John a smarty-pants something or other, and Lynn was another brainiac scholar who went in the health field. I think this all led to Don escaping his doldroms with pot and weed and ciggies - the old college standbys.

But to this day I laugh when I recall all the catchphrases and expressions Don coined: "Splendiferous," "Dumber Roy," "Knock it out of the Areeba," "Huzzah!," "We disappeared the high school, man!"

Don loved Neil Young (after all, he was a Canadian - from Winnipeg!) and in particular loved the song "Sugar Mountain." It was a song both of us took to heart, as its subject matter was about the difficult transition from idyllic youth to troubling adulthood. The song concludes that "you can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain." Don, a Peter Pan-style happy-go-lucky Lost Boy, wanted to stay 20 forever on Sugar Mountain. But he secretly knew it was an uphill battle and that after college, adulthood was nothing but a downhill slide. God rest your merry soul, Dondero. We love you and we miss you!

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Go You Chicken Fat Go!

"Chicken Fat" - The Youth Fitness Song
Words and music by Meredith Wilson
Sung by Bernie Knee
(Kimbo Records, 1962)

This is the most prized possession of all the platters in my record collection (and yes, it even surpasses my mint original Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch EP!). Any Baby Boomer coming of age in the early 1960s got their exercise in gym class while following along to this record that was written by Meredith Wilson. Wilson, of course, is best known as the author and composer of the musical The Music Man, which starred Robert Preston. Preston recorded a version of "Chicken Fat" in 1961 on Capitol Custom Records. I thought the booming voice barking out the instructions on the Kimbo Records' version also belonged to Preston, but it actually belongs to Bernie Knee (the same Bernie Knee who recorded the theme from The Blob with The Five Blobs). I finally scored a copy of this record years ago at the educational resources store in Towson's Kenilworth Bazaar. It may not have been No. 1 on the Billboard singles charts, but it was definitely "Number One on the Nation's Physical Fitness Parade"! And remember - "nuts to the flabby guys!"

"Chicken Fat" front cover

Following are the instructions for the 10-step workout I still perform daily:

Listen to Bernie Knee sing "Chicken Fat."

Listen to Robert Preston sing "Chicken Fat."

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